The vast majority of voters never meet presidential candidates, deriving their impression of them through traditional and social media. But the impression they are now getting of Biden is different from what they usually see on-air when outlets cover big speeches and rallies. Talking in a quiet voice directly to the camera gives Biden a chance to create fireside chats for the 21st century. Given how homebound most voters are, he may have a chance to reach a significant number of viewers in a very personal way.
Both in opening remarks and in answering questions, Biden strove to present himself as the figure already capable of uniting the country. From the start of the conference, he emphasized that we are all in this together, a unity theme that has been part of his message throughout his campaign. He began, “None of us want to be cooped up in our homes just as the weather is turning nice … just as the campaign for the presidency is kicking into high gear. But it’s necessary. … We have to stay home.” In contrast to President Trump, who attacks whatever convenient target will enrage his base (e.g., Democratic governors, the media), Biden continually praises people — Congress for getting out the bill, governors for struggling through, Americans for helping out.
New to his messaging, Biden also made a clear push to reach younger voters. He said in his opening remarks: “Millennials have grown up navigating enormous disruption and changes in our society, and still they stepped up all across to serve.” He answered a question from an 18-year-old press participant at length, covering everything from his pitch to pursue student debt forgiveness to paying for community colleges to unemployment benefits in the current bill for (mostly young) gig workers. His deliberate pitch that millennials are falling behind their parents and now face even more hurdles due to the virus and recession was a noteworthy shift in his messaging.
Biden also continued his focused, consistent attacks on Trump: Trump started addressing the crisis too late. He’s failed to use the Defense Production Act. He put out a phony deadline for opening the economy. The underlying message here is that Trump not only failed but is failing now to help the states. Biden also stressed the complexity and needed oversight to make sure stimulus funds are being spent correctly, something he directly handled in the Obama administration for the stimulus bill. Biden effectively paints a picture of a hands-on manager who knows politicians and other key figures, cajoles people to move swiftly and makes sure no one is getting away with pocketing the taxpayers’ money. One could not help but realize Trump likely has no idea exactly what is in the stimulus bill let alone the effort it will take to administer it.
And finally, in the nicest way possible, Biden all but told Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to scram. Asked about whether he would debate Sanders (don’t laugh, Sanders suggested on Tuesday there could be an April debate), he said matter-of-factly, “I haven’t thought about any more debates — I think we’ve had enough debates, so I think we should get on with this.” In short, why would the presumptive nominee debate someone who loses almost every state?
Biden says he’s learning how to use new technology. (He noted that one of his video events got more than 3 million views.) He’s an unlikely figure to revolutionize presidential campaigning, but in the coronavirus era, everyone has to improvise. Perhaps the quiet setting in his own home, the lack of a crowd and the conversational tone he can deploy will allow him to speak to us, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did, virtually one-on-one. For a candidate who thrives on a personal bond with voters, this is an extraordinary challenge but also an opportunity.